Q I know bamboo is a fast-growing resource, but I?ve heard concerns about its processing. Can you shed some light on this?
A You know you're opening a can of worms, right? Bamboo is, like, the hottest eco fibre since hemp Ts swept the granola movement decades ago. The speedy weed is being incarnated into slick bamboo decor, flooring, towels hell, even bamboo bras faster than you can spell "panda." But there are some cracks in its green facade.
No doubt bamboo is a miracle fibre. It can be used like wood but is actually a grass that grows so quickly without chemical pesticides or fertilizers that it can be harvested every year or so. It can actually shoot up a whole foot in a day!
Its intricate root structure helps prevent erosion when it's planted on hillsides and riverbanks, and it's tough enough to withstand the worst typhoons (handy in tropical climes). Plus, bamboo forests are impressive carbon sinks, and the grass is even being looked into for its water-detoxing properties, since it sucks heavy metal pollutants into its shoots. Really, the plant deserves the Nobel for most sustainable resource of the year.
But whether it gets to keep that trophy depends on a few factors. One is deforestation. Up to a third of the world's 1,200 bamboo species are on the brink of extinction, according to a report funded by the UN and the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. Many survive only in wee patches of forest, and their loss is threatening rare animals like giant pandas, Madagascar's golden lemurs and Africa's mountain gorillas.
Most manufacturers don't lust after pandas' bamboo (it's less than 3 cm in diameter and now relegated to remote parts of China). In many cases, rare species of bamboo are endangered because of population pressures on their habitat (think agriculture, timber, fuel).
Either way, you want to make sure you get the sustainable kind. If your flooring or salad forks are made from bamboo grown on a plantation, you should be all good that is, as long as natural forests weren't cleared to make room for that plantation. The dodgy practice was pretty common in China (where we get most of our bamboo stuff) until five years ago, according to a 2005 report by Dovetail Partners.
Still, the report also notes that farmers are switching rice fields, pine and eucalyptus plantations over to bamboo to cash in on the trendy crop. And while synthetic fertilizers might not be necessary, they're becoming more common in wealthier provinces.
Okay, now let's say your product was made with credible plantation- grown bamboo. The next point-docker has to do with how you process the stuff. If you're talking flooring, you want to make sure it's made with ultra-low-formaldehyde glue and sealed with a low-VOC finish. Silkroad's flooring is certified by Environment Canada's Environmental Choice program > and meets all those criteria, but I can't say the same for all bamboo flooring on the market.
Those reed-like bamboo blinds everyone has at some point in their life are fairly minimally processed but are likely sealed with heavy VOCs. Best to get the unfinished kind .
Bamboo forks, bowls and dinnerware aren't so bad, because they're generally finished with non-toxic sealants or natural oils.
Sadly, bamboo clothes can be a whole other ball of yarn. If it's mechanically processed the old-fashioned way by curing the fibres with natural enzymes, then spinning them into yarn (essentially how linen is made from flax), you're fine. But this labour-intensive and pricey method isn't all that common.
Most bamboo fabric is made with lots of caustic chemicals, just like rayon is made from wood pulp. Despite its oh-so-buttery softness, the dirty details may be enough to turn eco-heads off.
But just as lyocell/Tencel is the eco-friendly version of rayon, some textiles use a gentler closed-loop hydrogen peroxide process to bleach and soften bamboo , according to Michael Lackman, CEO of LotusOrganics.com.
So the answer is, well, muddy. If you're going to buy bamboo anything, ask lots of questions. Support suppliers that have made a firm commitment to using alternative processing methods and plantation woods. But without proper certification, it can be impossible to tell what's legit and what's draped in greenwash.